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The immorality of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump

Sep 19,2018 - Last updated at Sep 19,2018

LONDON — In a 2013 press conference, then-recently inaugurated Pope Francis famously said that, when it comes to sexual orientation, including past homosexual acts, “who am I to judge?” Should we take a similarly non-judgmental approach to the past personal behaviour of our political leaders?

The question is acutely relevant today in both the United States and the United Kingdom. US President Donald Trump, who has already reached the height of political power in his country, and former UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who aspires to keep rising in the ranks, have in common not just their crude nationalism, but also their apparent inability to control their sexual appetites. 

Trump’s extramarital affairs are common knowledge, despite hefty pay-offs intended to silence his sexual partners, such as the adult film performer and stripper known as Stormy Daniels. Though Trump is far from the first US president with a long record of adultery, he stands out for the crudeness of his remarks about women.

As for Johnson, reports are circulating that his wife has kicked him out over an affair. While this is hardly his first, nor even the first time he has been given the boot, there are questions now about whether this will hurt his political ambitions, which many believe were the main motivation behind his decision to act as a leader of the campaign to withdraw the UK from the European Union.

But is it appropriate to judge political leaders based on their sex lives, as many have been wont to do? The answer, in my opinion, is no.

Of course, actions like sexual harassment or assault should inform our assessment of a leader. But while Trump has faced such accusations, Johnson has not. And, ultimately, we do not elect people to political office because we want them to act as standard bearers for our subjective, varied and evolving definitions of morality. Someone who has been unfaithful to his or her spouse can be a skilled leader, just as a faithful wife or husband can be a poor one.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of other problems with the leadership of both Trump and Johnson, who resigned from his post as foreign secretary in July over his opposition to the compromises that Prime Minister Theresa May’s government decided it would be willing to make in the Brexit negotiations with the EU. While Johnson has some rhetorical skill, which he has been using with increasing vigor to whip up support for a “hard Brexit”, the general view is that he was a hopeless diplomat, always preferring a cheap joke to a serious brief. During his stint as foreign secretary, Johnson was a near-constant cause of embarrassment for the UK, with gaffe after gaffe leaving Britain’s friends abroad with their heads in their hands.

Since leaving that position, Johnson has not cleaned up his act. Just last month, he made the Islamophobic declaration that Muslim women wearing niqabs resemble “bank robbers” and “letter boxes”.

Soon after, Johnson described May’s EU negotiating position as being tantamount to wrapping “a suicide vest around the British constitution” and handing the detonator to the EU. The comment was tasteless, to put it mildly, not least because 22 people, including children, were killed by a suicide bomber at a concert in Manchester last year.

Such statements are clearly not befitting of a British political leader, much like many of the racially charged and otherwise incendiary comments, not to mention actions, that Trump has made. But these leaders’ failures run even deeper. To understand them, it is worth looking at three reputable leaders who died this summer: former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, former British foreign secretary and NATO secretary-general Peter Carrington and US senator John McCain.

Having worked with Annan and for Carrington, I can vouch for their grace, honour and commitment to truth. McCain plainly had the same qualities, not to mention a level of personal bravery far beyond what is expected of most of us, though it should be noted that Carrington was also a war hero. These leaders’ combination of honour and commitment to truth, two attributes that are intrinsically connected, is nowhere to be seen in Trump or Johnson.

No one would suggest that political leaders must respond to every question they are asked with entirely frank answers. That would be to expect behaviour far above and beyond what is normal. Dealing with life’s predicaments sometimes demands, to borrow the language of former UK cabinet secretary Robert Armstrong, that we are somewhat economical with the truth.

But there is a big difference between some economising, as even honourable leaders, like McCain and Carrington have surely done, and being a serial liar, as is the case with Trump and Johnson. Trump typically says whatever is in his short-term interest, though sometimes it seems that he does not even know what the truth is. Even his own lawyer is reputed to have described him as a liar.

Yet, Trump’s dishonesty runs even deeper: his entire nationalist political platform is based on the mendacious notion that America needs to be made great again. Yet, America was great before Trump, and his behaviour, riding roughshod over international agreements, trashing allies and pursuing protectionist trade measures, will only undermine that greatness by, among other things, depleting the country’s formidable stock of soft power. Similarly, Johnson’s Brexit campaign was based entirely on deception, crackpot economics and vainglorious wishful thinking.

A healthy democracy depends on an honest exchange of ideas and opinions, against a background of shared respect for facts and truth. The moral case against Trump and Johnson is not that they have been unfaithful to their wives, but rather that they subvert these conditions by lying relentlessly to the people they are supposed to represent.

 

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is chancellor of the University of Oxford. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
www.project-syndicate.org

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